WHO says more research needed following camel link to MERS coronavirus

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Doctors look at an X-ray. Photo: WHO

An international team of scientists has found that dromedary camels could be responsible for passing the deadly MERS coronavirus to humans. Mers stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. However, the World Health Organization says that it's too soon to reach any definite conclusions from the research.

Scientists looked at blood samples taken from livestock animals, including camels, sheep, goats and cows, from a number of different countries. The animals were tested for antibodies, which are the proteins produced to fight infections. The MERS virus, or one closely related to it, was found to have been circulating in dromedary camels.

Tarik Jasarevic, spokesperson for the World Health Organization, says that while the study is welcome, there's still a long way to go.

"What this study has shown in anti-bodies in the camels which means that the animals have been infected at some point in time and that produced anti-bodies. To be sure that this is the same MERS coronavirus Virus as it is in humans we need to find the virus itself not anti-bodies. So this would be the next step to find the virus and identify it as the same one."

Since the virus was identified in the Middle East last year, there have been 94 confirmed cases and 46 deaths. There has been evidence that the virus spreads from person to person but it's been thought mostly to have been caused by contact with an animal.

Mr Jasarevic says that this latest study doesn't rule out other animals, in addition to dromedary camels, as being the source of infection.

"Most reported human cases basically acquire the infection through contact with another person and those who have not been infected by other humans, most have not had contact with camels. It is also possible that more than one animal species that is infected with the virus. So basically it gives us some clue and direction to go but we still don't know the source of the virus and most importantly we still don't know what kind of exposure makes humans infected."

The study has been published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal.

Nicki Chadwick, UN Radio, Geneva.

Duration: 2’20″

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